This essay includes-
• Reasons for 33 million Gods in Hinduism.
• Religious development in India from the Vedic Times.
• Role of Sankaracharya in modern day Sanatan Dharm.
1. When Hinduism talks of one God how is it that we have so many Gods and Goddess, thirty three million as the saying goes. (By my E mail Guru. Since he is an exponent on Vedanta, this represents a Vedantic view.)
The Rishis were highly intelligent & observant people. Following the scientific premise that 'every effect has a cause', they infered that even for this beautiful creation there has to be a creator, who naturally has to have not only the knowledge but also the power to create. Thus we have to have a causeless cause - who has to be omnitient, omnipotent & omnipresent. He being the creator has to as though stand apart from the creation, and is thus free from the all the limitations of time, space & objectivity which characterize the creation. This transcendental, infinite embodiment of knowledge & power is what the scriptures call GOD. Infinite by its very definition has to be one, so we have the Vedas talking about one God. There after the entire scriptures talk about ways & means to give us a way of life wherein we live in cohesion with this fact of life. This Holistic way of living is the real 'Religious way of living'.
Just as various ornaments are created out of one material, viz.gold; so also one basic TRUTH manifests in the various forms. That one reality is called as Brahman in Upanishads (from the word 'Brahat' meaning the largest thing conceivable by man); while it’s various glorious manifestations are the worshipped as various Devatas - the so called 33 million Gods. Here also the 33 million stands for infinite. It is noteworthy here to indicate that in Hinduism we use two words as Ishwara & Devatas. The former is 'the thing', and the latter its various manifestation. The problem comes because in English when we use the word 'God' for both Ishwara & Devatas. (Every body is Uncle, Mama, Taya, and Chacha). Devatas are also that one reality but manifested in a particular conditioning, while the word God represents the unconditioned truth.
Creation is merely manifestation of one reality with different conditionings. Just like an actor taking different costumes. If you can see the truth behind all the roles then you know it, otherwise there will be inevitable fragmentation in the world with all its negative consequences. Transactions are only between conditionings so we have to learn to take them on, but yet be free from them by realizing that we are basically that which transcends them all. If you know that you are THAT, then you see yourself alone in & through all conditionings and we know that whenever we see our reflection in anyone there is that relationship & emotion which is seen in a mother & a child. That of pure love. The statements like 'Vasudheva Kutumbakam' thus become obvious. Imagine how beautiful will be the world when this vision is inculcated in all. This inculcation is also not forced but is the result of the right understanding of the world & ourselves.
In the 'Vedic era' the physical form of the various devatas were the elements of nature - the water, fire, earth, sun etc, later in the 'Pauranic era' they were humanized and thus we have various human form of devatas. It was seen that this will help personalize the relationships between man & the Devatas. But the basic principle remains the same. The worship of devatas always came with a package of understanding the fundamental principles, and it was presupposed that people will understand them properly. Whoever did - benefited, and those did not, created lot of problems for themselves and those around, by creating more divisions, sects & such fragmentation. (Idolatry in India does not mean anything horrible. It is an attempt of the underdeveloped mind to grasp high spiritual truths. )
Let us very briefly look at the various Gods and their functions.
1. Brahman is the Supreme Impersonal Godhead.
2. Iswara is the Brahman wielding his power of Maya to create, sustain or eliminate things.
3. Brahma is the creative aspect of Ishwara.
4. Saraswati is the Goddess of Learning and Wisdom. She represents the power present in a creator to create - knowledge. So every creator has to have Saraswati as his consort.
5. Vishnu is the preservative aspect of Ishwara. His blue color represents infinity.
6. Lakshmi is the consort of Lord Vishnu, and as preservation & sustenance requires wealth, she thus is the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity.
7. Siva is in charge of destruction. Every new creation has to destroy the previous condition so destruction is a part of the process of construction alone. He is also God of austerity.
8. Uma or Parvati is the embodiment of Sakti of Lord Siva.
These are the main deities given out by the Puranas, all others are their creation or secondary manifestations, and whoever knows the truth does not mind any of them, because he always sees the one behind the many. The Vedas say 'Ekam Sat vipraha bahuda vadanti', the truth is one the wise men call it with different names.
2. Religious Development in India.
While I have tried to be accurate on dates please do not attach much important to them but try and understand how/why the development took place.
Up to 1500 B.C. -
The early hymns were dedicated to the five elements of nature, Akash-space, Vayu-air, ite), Agni-fire, Jal-water, Prithvi-earth. Four thousand odd years ago man was highly dependant on nature, much more than what we are today?
The process of personification began gradually. The number of deities was on the increase due to a striking attribute abstracted from the personality of a deity or founding of a new deity. The plurality of Gods could not satisfy the Rig Vedic seers. Thus the later hymns designate him as the Supreme or Absolute. It is believed that this change happened to the growing influence of the concept of Rita.
Eternal Law, Rita
An important socio-religious institution of the Vedic Aryans was Yagna – if performed in the true spirit, was not only a means of bringing about the unity of the Gods and men to secure the desired ends, but was a means to secure lasting creation. The ordinances according to which Yagna was performed were prescribed by Rita, the Eternal Law which upheld the Cosmic Order.
Rita was all pervading, inexplorable from which creation began and by which its life was regulated and upheld. It was independent of Gods and men and was the strength of powers both natural and spiritual. The Gods were its guardians. A man could rise in nobility of stature only by it.
Rita had three aspects. Satya, Tapas and Yagna. Satya was that aspect that gave good conduct the power to produce results ie good actions. If Satya were to be possible all actions would needed to be done with a spirit of sacrifice, offering to God i.e. Tapas. This is possible when we discipline our body and mind to get rid of our ego. Yagna produces creative energy when an individual offers his precious possessions, greed, anger, fear, pride to fulfill the Cosmic Law i.e. offerings made with a spirit of sacrifice, Tapas.
The Central Idea is that Rita is one and indivisible, operating in the moral and spiritual fields. It chases away wickedness and regulates individual/collective life. In a personalized aspect, it is Divinity, whether represented by a god or God.
Sacrifices – Initially mantras were given importance. It was believed that Rita was maintained by offering of sacrifices. Gradually it gained in prominence and the period of the Brahmanas (section of the Vedas dealing with rites and rituals) saw a purely sacrificial religion emerge, mechanical in nature to be officiated by only a special class of priests. This period saw the emergence of Varnas (classes) and ashrama-s (stages of life). This made priests very powerful in society.
Excessive emphasis on rituals led to decadence in society. It was then that the first renaissance happened.
Upanishads Age 1500 to 600 BC
The Cosmic Order, Rita had a new form and content as the ultimate reality or Brahman, pervading and moving all that is, and as Reality, standing above all that is and that is not. (which the Upanishads called Brahman) The cause and effect relationship cannot be applied to the Absolute and the created universe. The spirit of man is identical with this Supreme spirit. Our suffering is due to our not realizing this identity.
This was the period of the Aryan Dravidian synthesis. One stream that flowed from the Aryans was nigama, the other was agama. The synthesis led to a common pantheon being accepted. Shiva, the father god, was first identified with the Vedic Rudra and during this period was recognized as the lord of creation. The Vedic Gods, Indra, Surya, Agni took a subordinate place. Ma, the mother goddess of the Mediterranean became the wife of Siva. The God, Vishnu also got into prominence and was equated with Siva.
As a result of this milan, Yagna became a highly elaborate ritual to be replaced by the Dravidian Puja. Without getting into the thoughts enunciated by various schools of philosophy from time to time, a new shape of Rita, Satya, Yagna and Tapas emerged.
The three aspects of Satya, Yagna and Tapas evolved into the Law of Karma, Law of Moral Causation and Yoga. According to the law of karma, the atman – soul passes from birth to birth entering a body depending on the quality of its deeds in every birth. Moral Causation covers the yagna aspect of Rita through which it is possible for man to shorten his route to self realization by giving up greed, anger, fear, ego etc. Like Tapas, Yoga can be pursued through self-discipline, control of the mind.
With the progress of ideas, the three aspects of Rita were accepted as different parts of Dharma.
Pauranic Gods - The above concept was difficult for the common man to comprehend. In order to help the common man, Vyasa felt the need for supplying some conceivable representations that are provided in the word-pictures of the Puranas. The word paintings became symbols of truth were conceived deities and the Puranic literature is full of blazing pictures of dynamic gods and goddesses. ?
For a historian, the Upanishads have greater significance. From the Upanishads may be traced the mysticism of Persian Sufism, to the mystic-theosophical logos-doctrine of Alexandrain Christians down to the teachings of Christian mystics, Eckhart and Tauler and the great German mystic of the 19th century, Schopenhauer.
The end of the Upanishad era saw the nucleus of the great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharat. The grammars of Yaksha and Panini were written. Conducting of rituals continued and became a profession. Vedic sacrifices became complicated and elaborate. It was then that Buddhism and Jainism came up as reforming sects.
Jainism – This old non-vedic religion arose in the later Vedic period and was revitalized by Vardhamana Mahavira in the 6th century b.c. It upheld ascetism and non-violence. The Jain way to Nirvana is –
1. Right faith.
2. Right knowledge.
3. Right conduct.
These are called the three jewels. For a householder right conduct consists in – Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya and Aparigraha.
Buddhism - The Buddha only restated the thought of the Upanishads. He spread the ideals of Sanatan Dharam but criticized rituals and importance of the priests, laid emphasis on morality. Thus, Buddhism can be considered to be the second renaissance of Santhan Dharam, the first being the Upanishads themselves.
The Buddha’s teachings were practical and were concerned with alleviation of ills faced by the common man. His teachings consisted of four Aryan Truths and eight Aryan Paths.
The Truths are Life is evil, Ignorance is the source of all evil, Evil can be overcome and Right knowledge is the means of removing evil.
The Paths are Right belief, aims, speech, action, living, effort, mindfulness and contemplation.
As a consequence Buddhist sadhana grew into a regimental, cold, self culture against the Joyous union of Sanathan Dharam.
600 B.C. to around 700 a.d.
While both the reforming sects became popular a majority of the population clung to Hinduism. Saivism and Vaishnavism developed around 200 B.C. There were many significant developments up to 3rd century a.d., the most significant being the code of Manu. A number of Puranas were written. The religion of the Upanishads was made simple and easy to understand. The famous literature of this age includes Patanjali’s Mahabhasya and Bharata’s Natyasastra.
The Epics became the very popular during this period. One of the significant developments in the advance of the religious thought was the doctrine of Avatara and the concept of Sakti personified as the Mother Goddess. Saktism gave rise to religious literature known as Tantras. This period saw the compilation of the eighteen Puranas, the dramas of Bhasa and Kalidasa, mathematical treatise of Aryabhatta, astronomical treatise of Varahamitra.
About the middle of the seventh century Buddhism was in a state of decline. At this time the country was divided into a number of small sects, some who went blindly by the scriptures while the others were ready to destroy all that was sacred. Fanatic, religion began to used as a weapon of aggression rather than at finding the Supreme Reality. This was brought about by the uncultured and uneducated people who had embraced Buddhism without understanding the teachings of Buddha. India was going through spiritual, intellectual, social turmoil. Squabbles, dissension’s and corruption prevailed in the name of religion.
Sankaracharya 788 to 832 a.d.
In such an environment was born Sankaracharya (S). S conceived India as one Cultural Unit ie from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari and from Assam to Afghanistan (Gandhara). He assimilated the good points of Buddhism, without criticizing rituals he purified parts that were misused, erected the edifice of Advaita and established four monasteries as centers of religious teaching.
To achieve his objective S traveled the length and breadth of the country, eradicating false values and philosophical systems. At Gokarna he convinced the Saivites about the superiority of Advaita Vedanta over Saivism. During his visits to Rameshwaram, he met people of different sects like Siva, Bhavani, and Saraswati etc. He pointed put to them the shortcomings in their worship and philosophy and educated them on the loftier versions in their respective systems. At Srirangam, a Vaishnavite stronghold, S educated them in the higher vision of unity. At Dakshina Kosala in modern day Bihar he reformed a sect that worshipped only Yama, the Lord of death. He also visited Kasi, Saurashtra, Peshavar or Purusapura and Kashmir.
Having achieved the cultural unity of India re-established the supremacy of Sanatan – Dharm, S went into a deep samadhi and through his Yogik power dissolved his human body into the five elements and disappeared from the vision of the mortal world.
The religious unity of India was achieved with the same set of major gods being worshipped by various communities. While hostility between different communities did erupt sometimes, side by side there developed a syncretistic attitude in religion – a spirit of tolerance.
Thus a modified monolatry, which maintained the supremacy of a particular supreme deity of the community while at the same time maintaining the existence and right to worship other gods started. Sankaracharya has been credited with the initiation of the Panchayatana Puja – the worship of five gods ie Vishnu, Siva, Sakti, Surya and Ganesha.
Establishment of Four Mathas at Joshimat, Puri, Dwarka and Sringeri.
With a view to promote cultural unity of India or Bharat, passing on of the great wisdom of the Rishis through generations, he asked his disciples to establish four centers of spiritual learning in the country, Joshimat in the North, Sringri in the South, Dwarka in the West and Puri in the East. During S’s travels throughout the country, he had come across numerous sects following different customs and practices. Having reformed them and awakened them to the Supreme Reality as enumerated in the Upanishads, he commanded the respect of all the Sects. S grouped all such leaders under ten categories, the Dasanami-s and put them under the allegiance of the Four Mathas.
Some of you might ask whether these Mathas can be compared with modern day Christian Churches. These centers were temples of spiritual learning and not only places of worship.
Although Kanchi was not one of the four centres, the Matha at Kanchipuram was also founded by S. According to tradition S brought five Lingas from Kailash and consecrated them at five holy places. Kedarnath in U.P., Nilakantha-Ksetra in Nepal, Cidambaram, Kanchi and Sringeri.
Sankaracharya is credited with giving the Gods the final shape and look as we see them today. I have not considered Sikhism since in a philosophical sense it is distilled Vedanta and was a result of Muslim oppression / the Bhakti Movement. Christianity and Islam are not Indian religions, thus do not justify inclusion in this essay.
Besides my Guru, this essay has inputs from Foundations of Indian Culture by K.M. Munshi, Sankaracharya – the Missionary by the Chinamaya Mission and History and Culture of the Indian People by The Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan.